Monthly Archives: May 2009

Hohle Fels Venus reveals more about modern times than ancient ones

A 35 ooo-year-old ivory figurine discovered in a small cave in Germany this past September has proven to be the oldest known piece of figurative art in the world, beating the previous record-holders by 5 000 years. Disappointingly, but not unsurprisingly, the archaeologists who made the discovery revealed their modern prejudices by describing the figurine as ancient porn. Violet at Reclusive Leftist elaborates:

…the Science Now article, the archaeologist who found the figurine is talking about pornographic pin-ups: “I showed it to a male colleague, and his response was, ‘Nothing’s changed in 40,000 years.’” That sentence needs to be bronzed and hung up on a plaque somewhere, because you couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of the classic fallacy of reading the present into the past. The archaeologist assumes the artist who created the figurine was male; why? He assumes the motive was lust; why? Because that’s all he knows. To his mind, the image of a naked woman with big breasts and exposed vulva can only mean one thing: porn! Porn made by men, for men! And so he assumes, without questioning his assumptions, that the image must have meant the same thing 35,000 years ago. No other mental categories for “naked woman” are available to him. His mind is a closed box.

Sad, but true.

Prolegomena to any future dumb questions about Women’s Studies

Someone asked me the other day, with a straight face, if there are women’s studies conferences. Being the diplomat that I am, I said, “Yeah, of course”; in response to his comment that perhaps women’s studies would be better off if there was a man teaching courses along with the “five” women professors, I feebly replied, “our department has like 30 professors!” I would have liked to pursue an extended diatribe about the ignorance that it takes to completely overlook the contributions of the forty-year-old department not just to academic knowledge but to real women’s lives all over the world,  about how our department receives a yearly $1 000 000 endowment for the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair, has eight full professors and 18 additional faculty members, and joins 44 degree-granting Women’s Studies programs in Canada, 900 Women’s Studies programs in the United States (this many that offer graduate degrees alone) and 250-odd programs worldwide to teach tens of thousands of students every year, how the Canadian Women’s Studies Association is a member of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and American Women’s Studies programs are overseen by the National Women’s Studies Association, which has been around since 1977, that a professor from my department recently published a column in the Georgia Straight, that everyone should read, about the ongoing importance of Women’s Studies .

It did get me thinking, though, about what the hell is wrong with the modern university that would allow one department to be so oblivious about what is going on just down the hall, or just across the quad, or on the other side of the student union building. And unfortunately I don’t have any good answers that extend beyond woebegone sentiments. I do have a theory, though, that I’m hoping has been taken up in detail by some clever scholar, and that I will one day stumble across in a thick tome dug up from the back corner of a used bookstore that will answer all of my questions once and for all. My theory is that the humanities and social sciences, especially the humanities, somehow project a perception toward laypeople that no special training is required in order to achieve proficiency. This is not to say that people aren’t aware that there is the possibility of graduate and post-graduate education in the humanities, or that people can and do devote their lives to studying things like “power” or theorists like Bourdieu. Rather, there seems to be a perception that even though this is the case, a layperson can still engage in a conversation with a humanities scholar and assume that they have all of the knowledge and competence that is required to formulate an argument about a topic in the humanities to a degree that is appropriate to engaging the arguments of the scholar on a peer-to-peer basis.

There is a stark contrast, then, between how laypeople approach the sciences versus how they approach the humanities, and more importantly, how people in the sciences versus those in the humanities regard these laypeople who are trying to interpret the work done in their fields without the necessary competence. Let me give a quick example. A quick Google search of blogs coming out of the sciences reveals a vast distaste with the way that science journalists handle science topics (Language Log, Bad Science, and Neuroskeptic, for instance, are highly critical of science journalists misinterpreting science stories). While some of their complaints can be attributed to laziness on the part of journalists, many of them can be more accurately attributed to science journalists having poor or deficient knowledge of the subject matter, which leads to them misinterpreting things that would be obvious for anyone proficient in the field. The humanities, on the other hand, don’t have a well-embedded and -accepted body of critique of the way that laypeople (e.g. journalists) misinterpret humanities topics, even though such misinterpretations happen all the time.

I think this is for a couple of reasons. First, there is no clear demarcating line between academic humanities topics and non-academic ones: academics talk about ideology, for example, but so do Republican talk show hosts. To a layperson, there is no reason to assume that what the academics are talking about is any different from what Rush is talking about, even though the difference is enormous. Similarly, academics talk about feminism, and so do our hippy moms; to the layperson, there is no recognition of the vast gulf that exists between the meaning of the term as it is used by academics and the meaning of the term as it is used by your mom (let alone the differences between academics). The second, related reason is that humanities jargon is often homonymous or heteronymous with everyday words. There is no reason for a layperson to assume that the word subculture has a different meaning in a cultural studies context than it does in an MTV context, or that the word competence has a different meaning in a literature studies context than it does in a Starbucks conversation context, or that the word problematic has a different meaning in a conversation about Althusser than it does in a conversation about a leaky faucet, or that the word imaginary has a different meaning in a sociology context than it does in a Disney context. Thus, when laypeople hear humanities scholars using the words problematic and imaginary as nouns, they get accused of being opaque for the sake of appearing erudite, when they are actually using terms of jargon that have decades-long histories of definitional specificity. Third, the humanities and social sciences, by their very nature, do tend to deal with issues that come up in people’s everyday lives, topics that are often dealt with by laypeople in Starbucks conversations and Disney movies (to some degree). However, scholars tend to use different tools and approaches to analyse these topics, and they often come at them from different approaches and have different goals than the laypeople. And not surprisingly, the approaches they use, and the arguments they formulate, require a great deal of training and specialized knowledge to create and comprehend. A person in the welfare lineup might have a lot to say about poverty, but they are not going to be saying the same things as someone in a graduate-level seminar about the same topic.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic of much debate, but it is a thing nevertheless. The salient difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is that the natural sciences are known to be “private” for the most part, in the sense that the inner workings of science tend to take place behind closed laboratory doors rather than out in public, and they deal with issues that are usually only of interest to specialists in the field; the humanities deals with issues that are public to begin with, so the divide between public issues and “closed door” social sciences/humanities is hard to distinguish, and thus specialist knowledge is considered, or appears to be, public property.

This is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because many social science/humanities types are wary of the way academic institutions separate scholars from the people and situations that they are studying. It’s hard to feel good about capitalizing on the experiences of the person in the welfare lineup by writing a thick dissertation on poverty and getting a cushy, well-paid tenure track professorship while the welfare recipient keeps receiving welfare. At the same time, this disparity between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is unfortunate because we live in a world where institutional legitimacy goes a long way; it’s tough being in a department that has limitless potential for improving people’s lives, and seeing that potential go down the drain because academic success is so incumbent on the pretense that quantitative knowledge is unassailable. But I digress. The meat of my theory here is that people ignore the legitimacy of the social sciences/humanities because of a fundamental difference in the way that the two poles are conceptualized by laypeople. Science is considered Scientists’ Business, and humanities is considered Everyone’s Business; this dichotomy erases the existence of the specialized knowledge and training that forms the basis of research in the humanities and social sciences. What’s the solution? More education for everybody.

Now where’s that book?


I was searching Women’s Studies International for “Naming Our Work” by Christina Gringeri, but I couldn’t remember the title. This is what I eventually found:


Aaargh! Of course, EBSCO has no simple feedback mechanism to correct errors like this.


I just discovered that my post about ovulars has been featured on the “ultra” anti-feminist blog aggregator Masculinisme. I can only assume that my post was picked up by some kind of automated web-crawler that noticed the words “Christina Hoff Sommers,” because linking here deliberately would be embarassing.

Long live feminism! Men are all assholes!

Grope therapy

Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors posted about groping on public transit on Wednesday. She quotes at length a post by Heart at Womenspace, which wonders about the possibility of women groping men:

I wonder what might happen if, when groped, women groped back?   I think if women groped back, men might hit them and hurt them. I also fear that if women groped back, men might rape them and would then call what they did “consensual sex.”  After all, she returned the grope, that must have meant she was up for it!  I think the only way the power dynamic around groping might change would be if women started randomly groping men whenever they got the chance– not groping back, but instigating the groping, so that men and boys never knew when or under what circumstances they might be groped and could not predict who would grope them.  After all, men grope women they already want, for whatever reason, to touch; touching them back just gives them more of what they wanted in the first place.  But women assuming “agency” and groping men they wanted to grope without concern for what the men wanted– that’s something different.  That is, in fact, what men do to women when they grope us.

An angry commenter, Psyck, wrote in reply:

Only a man would think or entertain the thought that women should start randomly groping men. Should we start raping men and boys so they’ll stop raping women and girls? Women and feminists don’t want a “tit-for-tat” game, we want men to stop deliberately and consciously hurting women.

I happen to agree with Psyck that feminists aren’t out for retaliation, but I disagree with the claim that Heart was asserting as much. I think Heart was making the point that I was clumsily trying to make in this post, that there is no analogue in the realm of men’s experience for the vulnerability that women feel when they’re being groped (generally speaking), especially since tit-for-tat retaliation would ultimately make women more vulnerable in other ways. Thus, it would indeed be fascinating to see how men react on Women Grope Men day, but it would not be practical to institute such a day because of the pervasive social and economic vulnerability that women experience in other parts of their lives.